Monday, February 8, 2010

Hat Honor, oaths, thee and thou for today?

This blog is raw thought, a work in progress...

I have been thinking a lot lately about hat honor, oaths and thee/thouing.

All of these sticky points caused a great deal of trouble for early Quakers. Seventeenth century England, as I understand it, was loosely analogous in its hierarchy to the military today. Everybody had a place in the order of being and everyone did the equivalent of saluting and saying "sir" to one's superiors.

Quakers refused to do that. They would not take off their hats (or bow) to social superiors, and they would not address their superiors with the plural "you," instead insisting on addressing them with the commonplace, singular thee and thou. They would not swear oaths.

Last night, as I was reading Rosemary Moore's The Light in their Conscience, a book about the early Friends, I learned something new: in both hat honor and oath taking, the wealthy and powerful were often treated as above the law. Moore quotes Fox, writing in 1657, that "If a Lord of an Earl come into your courts, you will hardly fine him for putting off his hat ... but it is the poor that suffer." (120.) Likewise oaths. Not only were oaths forbidden in the Bible, they "could also be a form of social distinction, as oath-taking was rarely required of the gentry." (120)

This underscores the extent to which faith practices and social justice issues wove together for the early Quakers. The early Friends were not resisting these customs or laws merely out of principle, but both from principle (religious conviction) AND from solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

I imagine, however, that most, if not all, of the poor would take off their hats or swear oaths when commanded. What apparently galled the Quakers were that these customs reinforced the lowly status of the poor and the privilege of the rich-- this was not the way things should function in the Kingdom of God.

But shouldn't the Quakers have not "sweated the small stuff," as we now say? Aren't we always saying that? We say "just suck it up." We say, "just chill, dude." Should the early Quakers have " just sucked it up?" How hard is it, after all, simply to lift your hand and take your hat off your head? Isn't it as easy to say "you" as "thee?" To swear the oath? Was it worth going to jail for these gestures and potentially losing your property, your livelihood, and in some cases, your life? Shouldn't the Quakers have just chilled and picked more important battles?

Leaving aside that it's fairly clear they weren't "picking," but following the promptings of the spirit, the Light, Jesus Christ incarnate in their hearts, what about us? Do we suck it up too much, suppressing the Light that tells us to protest petty injustice? Do we decide it's "it's not worth it?" Do we rationalize--use reason--where God is asking us to act from the heart?

It's clear that the "small" gestures of the early Quakers--not taking off their hats, not theeing and thouing--sent tremors through the society disproportionate to the gestures themselves. They were powerful symbols of a new way of living. They were simple acts affirming human dignity that resonate with us to this day.

It seems to me that we are living in a society that has become more stratified, in which the rich are richer and the poor are poorer. The stakes are higher for the poor--and even the middle classes--who are more apt than ever to "suck up" petty indignities because the abyss looms so close. For the rich, the stakes are lower than ever--they can heap on the petty humiliations--not deliberately, but because they don't have to think-- with greater ease because, well, if person A doesn't like a situation, person B is waiting in line for the job. It is a society in which, paraphrasing Dorothy Day, it is becoming harder, not easier, to be good. Which perhaps makes it all the more incumbent on people of conscience to insist on the good.

It seems more clear to me than ever that--as the Spirit directs, let me emphasize, as the Spirit directs--we need to stand up to the small injustices. These function--as hat honor did--as the stand-ins for the bigger social injustices that sweep across our culture. One example (and I am groping here to be concrete) might be cashiers who have to stand all day--why can't they have stools? Well, we are told they are "lucky to have jobs." In the grand scheme of things is a stool such a big deal? No, but if we agree as Christians or Quakers that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, that we should do unto others ... shouldn't we raise some questions?

Or should we just chill out?

18 comments:

Hystery said...

Diane, I'm not sure how to strike the right emotional tone in this comment but I had to respond as one who has had a reputation since childhood of being nearly incabable of being chill. It is odd for me to consider that anyone would be tempted to let something pass since I've not been able to do that myself and have had to be physically restrained from challenging folks in authority. The thing about petty injustice is that when you are poor or marginalized, petty injustices are layered so thickly they will crush you. I think that maybe early Friends may have been aware of this and had the feeling I often do when I encounter persons with wealth or authority who in ways both subtle and glaring lord it over those without the power to protect themselves. I think that maybe if more middle-class folks spent more time, more real time, with those without privilege, they would hear the stories and they would realize that there is nothing petty or inconsequential about what rich folks to do poor folks, what men do to women, what white people do to people of color, what straight people do to gay people, what adults do to children....and the list does go on. I am bone weary of hearing the stories and of witnessing the reality in the lives of my family, students, and neighbors. I'm bone weary of dealing with it myself. Every single day I hear little stories of manipulation and contempt, of condescension, arbitrary power, petty rules, and personal humilation. I've cried too many angry tears at this point to chill out. It would be a start if we all stopped removing our hats, even the metaphorical ones, and began standing our ground.

Diane said...

Thank you and bless you Hystery. Bless you my dear!

I too have trouble being "chill" and people tell--just let it go--which is why it is so much on my mind--I wonder, is it ME?

And thank goodness for cyberspace so I can meet people like you!!! But I don't want to dampen discussion--maybe there are others out there with a different take?

liberata said...

Today's equivalent of hat honor? How about "country first," and "I'm proud to be an American (and anyone who doesn't wear a lapel pin isn't patriotic" ?

God bless the whole world. No exceptions!

Joanna Hoyt said...

Or what about the use of academic titles, as when people who aren't physicians are addressed as Doctor X, or as in the display of degree letters in things other than technical publications in one's field?

Joanna Hoyt said...

More fundamentally, what if relatively privileged people felt called upon to do some of the basic physical work required for their survival? If that work was distributed more evenly, maybe the people who have to do all of it now could have more time and energy to put into expressing their other gifts. And it might be easier for people to see each other across class lines.

Bush Quaker said...

Joanna,

The academics certainly get very upset that I refuse to use their titles! Everyone is Mr or Ms to me, or preferably their given name, or friend (or similar epithet), if I have no name of any kind to use.

Hystery,

As so often, you speak my mind well on this.

Anonymous said...

The testimorny I about to tell thee is true.

My oldest daughter won a scholarship to a very expensive Quaker high school. We were pleased and delighted since we live very rurally and she did not have fellowship with Quakers her age. Little did we know, she was one one of two Quakers actually attending the school. One day, the headmaster announced that he would no longer allow hats at meeting. My daughter respectfully informed him that she would not remove her hat. Of course, I got a call and both my daughter (who I was very proud of) and I explained a little bit of our Quaker heritage to our non-Quaker friend. After this talk the headmaster said that Quaker children could wear hats but not others!!!!! True to her age, my daughter wore increasingly more elaborate hats to meeting. At the end of the year, my daughter explained to me that it was not a Friends School anymore, no matter what their literature said, and she wanted to leave. With a heavy heart, I had to agree. The hat wasn't the only issue. I agree that sometimes the small stuff IS the big stuff.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for the provocative post, Diane.

In my most recent experience, I would say that some of the "hat honor" that I've refused to endure has included:

1. Watching a white manager at a local Denny's delay an African American patron who had misunderstood the "free" Grand Slam Breakfast deal. The patron owed all of $2.55 cents for a drink that he probably thought was included in the meal (I certainly thought my drink was included).

But more harmful to me and my spirit was watching a number of other people in the crowded restaurant do nothing or turn their heads away from what was happening at the cashier's stand.

I got up, asked the patron if he could use a hand, and offered to pick up the small tab. He was grateful.

2. For a number of months, the meeting worshiped at the nearby Friends School while construction and repairs were being done at the meetinghouse. Each First Day, a custodian would set up and take down the chairs for our MfW.

On occasion, we would need additional chairs or have some unexpected need. Most Friends never made an offer to help--set up chairs or put chairs away.

One day, I recall, the chairs were stacked up in the gym where we were worshiping, but they hadn't been arranged yet. Rather than just start setting the chairs up ourselves, one or two Friends went off looking for the custodian. Maybe there was a concern for "doing something wrong," but I think it was more deep-seated than that.

So many of us take for granted the custodial work that others do on our behalf.

So many of our small but important acts that are a testament to equality go unnoticed because they don't directly or publicly challenge the status quo. And if they don't directly or publicly challenge the status quo, the media won't pick it up and word won't get around.

And it will be that much harder to inspire one another to live up to the Light we have been given...

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Roger said...

Anonymous, what a provocative post. As someone who works at a Friends school, and who felt led by the Lord to be here, your testimony deeply saddens me. Everyone involved in Friends education, I think, is moment by moment rethinking and interpreting what Friends education means as we interact with staff and students. All of us are guilty of falling into easy institutional relationships instead of struggling to mind the light. It is hard work, and as humans we are all too prone to second guess ourselves.

Kim Ranger said...

Joanna, I wonder why physicians should be any exception? (BTW, PhD Academics were the first to be called "Dr." prior to physicians.) I like the Quaker practice of addressing strangers as and all others by first name.

Kim Ranger said...

hmmm, the blogger left out part of my sentence above: I like the Quaker practice of addressing strangers as "first name last name" ...

forrest said...

We still do have hat honor, you know, in court. And while it isn't a demand that wealthier people are necessarily immune from, what you see when you look around you in misdemeanor court--are poorsouls. There's no law that says you have to be a poor lowlife to be caught, cited, brought in to be judged for some minor misbehavior that might have passed unnoticed in a better neighborhood; but there's an overwhelming preponderance of poor lowlifes among those waiting to be intimidated and inconvenienced by the Law. And demanding they take their hats off is part of the process of beating them down.

That wasn't the reason I refused. And I'm not entirely sure why George Fox and his colleagues were led to refuse, except that it was far more than a "testament of Equality." Something more along the lines, perhaps, of: "There's a real Judge above us, and that's the only one I can truly worship."

kevin roberts said...

I don't take my hat off for judges. I explain why, but if that's not good enough I suffer whatever consequences ensue.

I don't swear oaths for judges. The last time I was in court, a man I had protected won a frivolous $2500 lawsuit against me because the judge would not let me testify in my defense.

I sweat the details. Anybody can. They're important today for the same reasons they were important originally.

Johan said...

I'm a little cautious about ascribing cynical motives to other peoples' symbolism--especially when we're defending our own symbolic behavior (plain speech in defense of honesty, for example). Hat honor in court is not intended to put down poor people; it is intended to reinforce the ideal, however maligned in practice, of the majesty of the law--nobody is above the law--and the independence of the judiciary. These are incredibly important ideals. However, our own ideals of equality and integrity are also very important--sufficiently important, in fact, to justify prophetic behavior on their behalf, without getting all superior and cynical about others' motives, which we may or may not have accurately diagnosed. Let's maintain our testimonies, let's continue to practice the "provocative innocency" (R.W. Tucker's term, I believe) of our symbolic behaviors of avoiding hat honor, false flattery, etc.--but for the positive purposes of expressing our ideals and promoting spiritual exchange.

All symbolic behavior is risky, subject to misinterpretation and corruption. In some languages, using "thee" without adequate explanation simply sounds disrespectful, an assertion of an intimacy that doesn't exist. We do have some responsibility to explain context, or we simply add another layer of tiresome one-upping, the creation of yet another in-group.

At a trial in Richmond, Indiana, I was impressed that the judge had people stand for the entrances and exits of the jury rather than for his own entrances and exits. He explained that this was his court's way of honoring the jury system.

forrest said...

"The majesty of the law" is precisely the earthly power I needed to refuse to worship. There are various human motives, not all of them bad, for worshiping this idol, but it is a Power in rebellion, you know, and the signs of its Fallen condition are clear enough from underneath. Like all such powers, it was created with the purpose of serving the general human good, but the contemporary system of Law has forgotten that humankind was not made for Its sake.

You won't find many people serving the law with any intention of using it as a means of keeping poor people down. But the System's victims are overwhelmingly from the poorest and least capable of defending themselves. The rich and powerful who want to do anything antisocial simply find ways of ignoring inconvenient legal obstacles--while citing The Law piously as an absolute barrier to any effective action towards improving the lot of those poorer and less influential. If a law seriously impedes the depredations of the rich-- The Glass–Steagall Act was an example-- they can effectively set it aside. Another example was the provision of the McKinney Act on deactivation of military bases that stated that the first priority use of released land would be for housing homeless people; my City of San Diego hired a lobbyist to eliminate that requirement. The Mayor who said "The homeless aren't going to see a stick of that property," and sent a publicly-funded minon to Washington to ensure that outcome, had no need to fear "the majesty of the law."

Ted M. Gossard said...

This post was moving to me, especially the point of moving where the Lord leads.

I'm thinking so many of us Christians have misplaced priorities. I so much admire the witness of the early Quakers you refer to here, Diane. And I agree, we do need to ask questions like you're posing here. We do need to foster sensitivity in line with the love which is to motivate everything.

Liz Opp said...

I've had this post and some of the comments stay with me over the week since I first read it.

I wanted to come back to it because I have thought that today's "hat honor" may be akin to being in solidarity with GLBTQ people who are denied certain rights that other couples have--such as the right to marry, the right to co-parent as a committed couple, etc.

I was touched when a number of people from my monthly meeting--most of them straight--got up early on a Thursday morning and attended a rally at the state capitol, supporting marriage equality. It was nice to have straight allies who were willing to take a somewhat public stand on the nature of my relationship with my partner.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...

Interesting stories here; it seems even levellers, now they've had a taste or two of power, aren't levellers any more.

It does restore one's faith in human nature, at least.